A Beginner’s Guide to Miles (How to Earn Them and How to Score Free Travel with Them)
Being excited for a flight, especially for one to start a vacation, is normal. When airline miles are stacking up in your account because you can’t fly during a worldwide pandemic, it can only make that desire to use them more intense and add to the thrill of going on vacation.
Whenever global travel returns to normal, expect pent-up demand for airline tickets to soar. Airline mile hoarders, whether hanging on to miles intentionally or stacking them up by shopping online more as they wait out the pandemic at home, may rush to airline websites to use their miles.
After all, who doesn’t have a dream trip in mind? And with a free flight you’ve earned in miles for flying or using your credit card, it can be all the more enticing.
What are the best ways to earn free flights with airline miles? Which airlines have the best award programs? In this beginner's guide we look at those issues and others, and detail how to best use your coveted miles with this guide.
- What are airline miles?
- How airline miles work
- Cash back vs. miles
- Best cards for miles comparison
- Bottom line
What are airline miles?
Airline miles are earned two ways: There are miles earned by flying a certain distance, such as around 2,400 from San Francisco to Honolulu. These are sometimes called frequent flyer miles. And there are miles earned by using a credit card.
Either way, they’re a type of travel reward that can be used to book flights for free. The programs are run by airlines, so the miles stay within that airline and its partners, which includes credit card companies.
The free miles aren’t actually free, however. You pay for them by paying for a flight that you’re earning miles on, or by spending money on a credit card. Still, they’re a nice way to be rewarded as an airline customer. It's a perk; a bonus.
The airline industry’s first loyalty program was created by Texas International Airlines in 1979. It merged with Continental Airlines in 1982. In 1981 American Airlines created what has been called the first successful customer loyalty program in the industry, and frequent-flier mile programs have been used by almost every airline since.
Our focus is on how to best use and earn miles, including earning them by taking flights. Credit cards, however, are the biggest way to earn miles and will be our main focus.
What you need to know
Before we get into the details of how to best earn and use miles, there are a few things to keep in mind before you get a credit card with the focus of earning miles:
You’re still spending money
You probably have a dozen or so rewards cards in your wallet or purse already. Ice cream shops, coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, theaters, and many other kinds of retailers have customer loyalty programs to encourage return visits.
It all requires spending money, which is the main point of all airline mileage programs: to get you to buy more plane tickets. It works the same way at your local frozen yogurt shop. Get your yogurt rewards card stamped 10 times and get one free dessert.
The difference is that flights cost a lot more than frozen treats, and you’re more likely to return again and again to the same airline if it helps you earn miles for a free trip someday.
In an article about how to improve airline customer-loyalty programs, the travel logistics consultancy McKinsey & Company said that in a classic loyalty program, 20 round-trip economy-class flights from Europe to North America at a total cost of around $20,000 can earn a passenger enough miles to redeem a first-class ticket that costs $10,000. That’s a 50% payback for the airline.
Our point is that paying for more flights so that you can someday earn a free one shouldn’t turn into a habit.
Pay your credit card bill off each month
OK, so you’re ultimately paying for a “free” flight in some way. But that doesn’t mean you have to overspend.
With a credit card that rewards users with free miles, it’s important to only use the card for what you’d pay for otherwise with cash and do not have a revolving credit card balance. Pay your credit card bill on time and in full each month to avoid late fees and interest. If you don’t, then those charges subtract from the value of the miles you’re using for a flight.
Check your credit score
Travel rewards credit cards aren’t given to everyone. Companies prefer customers with excellent credit scores of 740 and higher.
You can probably get some type of miles rewards card with a “good” credit score of 670-739, but the best travel cards are offered to people with the best credit.
Some credit card networks may be more inclined to look at your household income to ensure you can afford a minimum credit limit on their card.
Your credit score can fall for many reasons, and the best ways to raise it is to pay your bills on time, use 30% or less of the credit available to you, have a long credit history, and have different types of credit.
How to earn miles
There are five main ways to earn airline miles.
Taking a flight is the easiest way to earn miles. Since you were going to book a flight anyway, why not earn miles through the airline’s loyalty program?
Miles awarded equal the number of miles flown each way on a flight, making it easy to determine how many miles you’ll earn on a trip.
Signing up for an airline miles rewards program is free. You’ll get the most out of a program through an airline you regularly use.
Airline alliance systems make earning miles on multiple airlines easy. The three major airline alliances are Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld. Most major airlines belong to one of them.
These are the big numbers that can entice you to apply for a credit card. You’ve probably seen them in advertisements or mailers sent to your home.
Some sign-up bonuses can be so huge that you’ll earn a free flight with them almost immediately. Many require spending a certain amount of money within a few months to receive that bonus, however.
Dreaming of going to Hawaii? The Hawaiian Airlines MasterCard gives new cardmembers 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of opening a card.
That’s more than enough miles for a round-trip flight from the West Coast to Hawaii.
The card has a $99 annual fee, so make sure that the free flight and other benefits are worth it to you. The card also offers a one-time 50% discount flight for a companion, and the first checked bag is free.
A mileage reward credit card is exactly what it sounds like: Earn miles for purchases on the card.
Airlines work with specific credit card providers, so you’ll have to qualify under that card provider’s credit requirements to get the card.
Most cards don’t have a limit on the total miles cardmembers can earn, as long as the program continues and the account is open and in good standing.
Some types of purchases earn more than others, and some cards change categories every quarter.
You’ll usually get the most miles for using the credit card to buy flights on the airline associated with the card. The Hawaiian Airlines card mentioned above gives three HawaiianMiles for every $1 spent on airline tickets and other things directly from the airline.
Users earn two miles for every $1 spent on gas, dining, and grocery store purchases, and one mile is earned for every dollar spent elsewhere.
Some cards rotate rewards points categories, such as spending at supermarkets or gas stations earning you more miles or cash back for three months, then switching to restaurants. A 5% cash back bonus for purchases in a certain category each quarter is common.
Online shopping portals are a way you may not think about earning miles. Airlines and their credit cards promote them, but they may not be a part of your normal shopping routine.
Shopping at a shopping portal lets you then click through to the merchant directly. You can earn bonus points or miles for using the portal, along with the normal amount of miles you’d earn anyway for using the rewards credit card. It’s a way to double-dip on earning miles.
Many airlines have shopping portals. The United Airlines MileagePlus Shopping portal has more than 900 online stores and services. Some retailers pay 1 mile per dollar spent, but some offer better deals, including saving cash on your purchase.
In the United Airlines portal, Adidas recently offered 33% off any order and 3 miles for every $1 spent. Its previous reward was 1 mile per $1 spent. Subscribe to Disney+ for a year and earn 400 miles.
The bonus mile offers change often to encourage shoppers to return to the site to search for deals.
How airline miles work
Generally, miles earned with a credit card can be used in more ways than frequent flyer miles earned on a flight. Some airline-branded cards award miles that can only be used on that airline, while some credit cards award generic miles that can be redeemed with any airline or other travel provider.
Credit card miles are redeemed at a per-mile value that’s fixed by the airline and can be found on mileage charts on each airline’s website.
Airline alliances make using miles easier by allowing miles to be transferred among many different airlines. Join these three alliances and chances are any flight you want to use miles on will be covered:
- Star Alliance: United Airlines is among the 35 airlines in this group, where MileagePlus miles from United can be earned and used on other airlines. Other Star Alliance airlines include Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Air China, Lufthansa, and Swiss Air.
- SkyTeam: The SkyTeam alliance has 19 member airlines, including Delta and its SkyMiles program, Air France, AeroMexico, KLM, and Korean Air.
- Oneworld: Led by American Airlines, the Oneworld loyalty program has 14 airlines. Alaska Airlines will soon make it 15 when it joins. Other airline members include British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Qantas, and Qatar Airways.
Each alliance’s website makes it easy to find a flight and redeem miles with member airlines. Sign up for one of each alliance’s frequent flyer programs and you can then enter your membership number when making plane reservations within an alliance.
Airlines that don’t belong in an alliance include Eithad, JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. Alaska Airlines wasn’t part of a major alliance, but is joining Oneworld soon.
Biggest airlines with miles
The biggest airlines tend to have the best mileage reward programs and the best partnerships with credit cards.
Big isn’t always better, however. If you fly a small airline regularly, then it may be worthwhile to apply for its credit card so you can rack up miles flying and using its credit card. A free flight is a free flight, no matter which airline you fly.
Our focus is on the biggest airlines, which in the United States comes down to three:
The United MileagePlus program is easy to use and has a number of credit cards tied to it through Chase.
One of the best is the United Explorer Card. Its benefits include:
- 40,000 bonus miles earned after spending $2,000 within 3 months of opening account
- Two miles earned per $1 spent on United, food delivery services, and at restaurants and hotels
- No annual fee for the first year, then $95
- Two United Club one-time passes each year
- Free first checked bag
- Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit
United has five levels of what it calls Premier status. Higher levels are reached by taking more flights and spending more on its credit cards. Miles can be redeemed for points, which can get you flight upgrades, pre-boarding, better seats, free checked bags, free drinks, and more miles earned on flights, among other perks.
Delta SkyMiles can be earned with four types of American Express credit cards. A comparable one to the United Explorer Card listed above is the Delta SkyMiles Gold Card. Its benefits include:
- 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 within the first 3 months
- No annual fee for the first year, then $99
- Earn $100 Delta flight credit when spending $10,000 on a card during a calendar year
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants, supermarkets, and on Delta
- First checked bag free on Delta flights
- Priority boarding
Delta offers what it calls Medallion Status to customers who fly the most with such upgrades as better seats, waived fees, and free checked baggage. It has four Medallion Tiers. Diamond is the highest level and has such perks as Delta Sky Club access.
The American Airlines AAdvantage program has a number of credit cards through Citi. One of the best is the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. Its benefits include:
- 50,000 bonus miles after $2,500 in purchases within 3 months
- No annual fee for the first year, then $99
- $125 American Airlines flight discount after spending $20,000 in a year and renew your card
- Two miles earned for every $1 spent on restaurants, gas, and at American Airlines
- First checked bag free on a domestic flight for up to 5 people
- 25% savings on inflight food and beverage
- Preferred boarding
American Airlines has four levels of elite status. Miles can be redeemed for upgraded seats, and certain status levels provide more benefits. Executive Platinum, the highest level, allows three free checked bags per flight, compared to one free bag for Gold members, it’s lowest status level.
What you get with miles
The real fun of all of this is redeeming your miles for rewards. Airline tickets are the main rewards, of course, but there are other options too.
Using miles to get airline tickets is easy: Just find the airline’s redemption chart and book your flight.
Start by using the airline’s alliance website to search for flights so you can compare flights to your destination on a number of airlines.
That sounds easy enough, right? It is until you compare how much a mile is worth and when you use it.
You want to use as few points as possible to get the seat you want whether it’s in coach or business class. A one-way flight in coach can cost 10,000 miles on one airline but require 20,000 on another. Or a first-class seat can cost 50,000 miles on a weekday in the off-season, but 75,000 miles in peak-season.
All of the major airlines use dynamic pricing. Mileage requirements can change daily, depending on demand. Booking as far ahead as possible, such as a year ahead, can be worthwhile.
United Airlines, for example, has an area of its website where it highlights the latest deals. A recent search turned up a one-way economy fare from San Francisco to Shanghai in February 2021 for 35,000 miles. If you don’t mind flying to China about a year after the coronavirus broke out there, then this is a deal if the standard reward value of 1 cent per mile is used. That’s $350 for a one-way flight.
Want to leave New York for a quick trip to Florida in December? United offers a one-way trip from Newark to Fort Lauderdale for 6,000 miles.
To see how much your miles are worth, look up the cost of the flight on the airline’s website. To determine how much you’re getting for each mile, divide the price of the flight by miles. The Newark-Fort Lauderdale flight with miles is a heck of a deal.
United’s cheapest economy flight on that trip is $71. Divide 71 by 6,000 miles and get 0.01 per mile. That’s one penny per mile that you’re paying to fly to Florida, which is a good deal.
The less a flight costs per mile, the better. A penny per mile is 10 times better than using 10 cents per mile on a trip.
Upgrades to a better cabin are the most common upgrades to use miles for with an airline.
An upgrade through American Airlines AAdvantage miles within the continental United States, for example, from discount economy to premium economy costs 15,000 miles and $75. Going up from a full-fare economy to a premium economy costs only 5,000 miles.
Premium economy on American Airlines is seated behind business and first class. The benefits these passengers get include:
- Speed through check-in, security, and boarding
- Wider, leather seats with more legroom and extendable foot and headrests
- Free on-demand entertainment with larger monitors and noise-reducing headphones
- Wi-fi, power outlets, and USB ports in every seat
- Amenity kit with skincare samples
- Pillow and blanket
Cash back vs. miles
Getting cash back from a credit card is almost always better than getting miles. Unless you find an incredible airline sale where few miles are needed for a trip you want to take, cash in your pocket is better for a few reasons.
The first is that it’s actual money you can spend any way you want. It’s flexible. That might not be a good thing if you’re blowing it on pizza and drugs, but putting any cash back you get from a credit card aside in a savings account so you can take a dream vacation someday can be a strong incentive to save.
Cash may also be better if you’re saving miles for a big trip across the globe. Even without dynamic pricing, airlines can change the number of miles required for a flight at any time. Chances are that a trip you want to take today will cost more in miles than it will a year from now.
You’re also likely to earn more in cash back than you would in miles. This comes partly from the fact that most cash-back credit cards don’t charge an annual fee, while many mileage cards do.
Cash back rewards can hit 6% of a transaction, though they might be limited to categories such as groceries.
The biggest consideration may be how often you travel. If you travel often enough to justify annual fees on miles cards, and you plan on flying a few times a year for free by using miles, then a mileage card is a good choice. If not, then a cash back card can offer more value.
Going off our general idea that one airline mile is worth 1 cent, you can figure out how much your miles are worth. A 50,000-mile bonus for spending $2,000 in two months equals $500 of value in miles. And let’s assume you pay off that $2,000 credit card bill without incurring interest or late charges.
With 5% cash back, you’d only get $100 on that $2,000 in expenditures, because 5% of 2,000 is 100. That makes the mileage bonus worthwhile.
Best cards for miles comparison
Here’s how the three big airlines in the U.S. compare with what we think may be the best card for consumers for each airline. The annual fee is waived the first year, then starts the second year.
|Airline||Card Name||Annual Fee||Signup Bonus||Mileage high point|
|United||Explorer Card||$0, then $95 2nd year||40,000 miles||2X|
|Delta||American Express SkyMiles Gold||$0, then $99||50,000 mile||2X|
|American||Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard||$0, then $99||50,000 miles||2X|
Great credit cards for travelers
Chase Sapphire Preferred
While not an airline credit card, Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the best travel credit card companies for your travel goals. Chase Ultimate Rewards provides airlines miles and hotel points (free nights at hotel chains like Hyatt, Marriott and IHG!) on everyday spending. You'll earn 2:1 points on travel and dining at restaurants plus 1:1 point on every dollar spent using the card. New cardholders will receive 80,000 — yes! 80,000! — bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, which is worth $1,000 in travel rewards.
Chase Freedom Unlimited
Use Chase Freedom and receive 5% cash back on travel purchases, 3% on dining and drugstore purchases and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases. New cardholders can also earn 5% on grocery store purchases in the first year, as well as enjoy a 0% APR for the first 15 months. Plus, the card doesn't carry an annual fee.
Using the signature American Express Membership Rewards program, you can also earn points on most everyday purchases using an eligible card enrolled it its program. Amex doesn't have any minimum spending requirements and claims to have the most transfer points of the major U.S. credit card issuers. It provides 1:1 on spending on a personal card or 1:2 spending if using a corporate card.
Airline miles are an easy way to enjoy free travel through award flights and award tickets. It’s free to join an airline’s frequent flyer program, so if you’re going to go on a trip you might as well earn miles for it.
You can gain more miles by getting a credit card tied to an airline. The annual fee can bring down the value of the miles gained, however, though most cards offer plenty of other perks to make up the difference.
Going into debt by paying interest charges or late fees on revolving credit will also negate the miles earned, so try to pay the credit card bill on time and in full each month to get the most out of the miles you earn.
Lastly, compare the miles you’ll need to use to get a free flight to the cost of the flight to make sure you aren’t using more miles than you need to. One mile equals about 1 cent in value, though you can find different valuations across the internet.
A free flight is a wonderful thing, but not so much that you’re overpaying for it with miles you paid for much earlier on a credit card or from buying previous airline tickets.
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